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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

touchy-feely

(1980’s | journalese? therapese? | “unscientific,” “soft-headed,” “frivolous”; also “hands-on”)

“Touchy-feely” is actually a little old for the blog, having arisen in the late sixties or early seventies to talk about Esalen and encounter groups. In its original sense, the term was quite literal; the phrase referred invariably to physical contact, often with the implication that there was something illicit about it. No doubt some of that stuff really was orgies disguised as treatment, but more legitimate forms of therapy also explored the benefits of contact — affectionate, violent, or otherwise. This meaning of “touchy-feely” was always most common but the expression had two other meanings since the seventies that remain available. One is “affectionate” — but “touchy-feely” is often used more specifically to describe someone who subjects students or employees to unwanted touching. The other, less common, is “hands-on,” as in a museum or lesson. So an exhibit where visitors are encouraged to touch the objects on display might be described as touchy-feely. This is not a common usage, but I found examples from the seventies and the teens, so it demonstrates a low-grade persistence. Occasionally, it can even mean “intuitive to use,” as in a smartphone feeling natural under one’s fingers. As far as I can tell, the phrase has nothing to do with “touchy,” meaning irritable or easily offended. Older expressions that may have exercised influence are “namby-pamby” and “lovey-dovey.” A newer one that is used in similar ways is “warm-fuzzy.” (Thanks, Liz!)

The reigning meaning of “touchy-feely” mutated, or grew, rather quickly. By 1980, it was already possible to use it much more loosely to talk about all kinds of human interaction, not just tactile. Anyone who tried to get a group to work, play, or learn together effectively by getting to know each other (or themselves) or talking about feelings rated the term. To this day, it is used to talk about the unquantifiable, the impressionistic, the emotional. Even when “touchy-feely” doesn’t mean touch, it always means feelings.

The expression is generally used with derision, which may be veiled or unconcealed. The state of being “touchy-feely” is the antipode of rigor and analysis, so it is unscientific and its benefits are therefore considered unprovable. But it is also opposed to machismo. Real men do not drag emotions into the conversation, or base their actions on them (which is just as well, because when they do, they tend to turn violent). It is also opposed to law and order; cops and prison guards reserve special venom for those who advocate anything other than forcible and remorseless crackdowns on criminals. The range of people who use the phrase with a sneer is wide: engineers, computer geeks, physicians, businessmen, law enforcement, political conservatives, real men from all walks of life. At its broadest, it becomes a synonym for vague, impractical, effeminate, soft, or weak. Even when it is used jocularly, an undertone of scorn is usually there. When tough-minded executives use the term, they do so to dismiss anything unrelated to the bottom line, and the phrase connotes employees paying too much attention to themselves and not enough to the welfare of the company. The work done, and even the employees themselves, have a dollars-and-cents value, and anything that suggests that they might have other kinds of value, to each other or to the organization, is brushed aside. In extreme cases, human warmth of any kind, even in the briefest manifestations, is considered detrimental to profits.

“Touchy-feely” has come to stand for a wide range of attitudes, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world. In that respect it resembles another sixties word, “holistic,” but it has fewer defenders. You don’t use this term when you’re talking about making the office more productive by creating a collegial and friendly atmosphere, except perhaps with a tone of rueful irony.

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